It’s 1964 and Barbara Parker is being crowned Miss Blackpool Belle in the first scene of new six-part drama Funny Woman. Played with warmth and humour by Gemma Arterton, she is Bardot beautiful in a white swimsuit, but she is also funny, because she mugs at the camera.
Not content to settle for life as a seaside beauty queen, working in her father’s rock factory and engaged to the handsome local butcher, she makes her way to London, hoping to make it in the TV sitcoms she and her dad love so much.
Of course fame and fortune don’t come easily. We follow Barbara through short-lived jobs at a department store and as a fan dancer in a Soho strip club, before she crosses paths with theatrical agent Brian Debenham, played by Rupert Everett in fat suit and combover wig.
Changing her name to Sophie Straw, Debenham tries to sell her as a blonde bombshell but Lucille Ball-obsessed Barbara won’t have it, opting out of auditioning for a Carry On film because she doesn’t “want everything to be about my knockers” (the part goes to Barbara Windsor). Eventually Sophie tricks her way into a TV role with her heroes The Awkward Squad, a Goonsesque comedy troupe.
The series is adapted from Nick Hornby’s 2016 novel Funny Girl and the switch from Girl to Woman in the title is symptomatic of the 21st century political sensibility with which the book has been adapted for screen by Morwenna Banks.
It’s still not the norm to see the lives of women, working class or non-white people represented in period pieces, and Banks’s attempt to broaden the scope of Hornby’s novel to tackle this is worthy. That said, there’s something jarring about the modern lens through which we’re shown the power dynamics at play set against the intensely Sixties production design.
Scenes of Swinging London are given a Super 8 filter, characters visit Biba and Carnaby Street and drop LSD against a motley ‘Best of the Sixties’ soundtrack. We’re constantly reminded of the era and yet characters behave in ways and use language that feels completely implausible, meaning it neither works as a flight of fantasy, Bridgerton-style reimagining of the past, nor as a serious reappraisal of it.
At best, the boldness with which characters stick up for themselves against racism, sexism and sexual violence could be seen as a sort of wish fulfilment, but mostly it feels patronising both to those people who struggled then against a society that was not built for them and those who continue to be ignored, undermined, and discriminated against today. If it was that easy, why is it still happening?
This is a shame because the scenes that focus on the making of Jim and Barbara, the BBC programme Barbara/Sophie eventually gets her big break on, give a glimpse of what the series could have been. From the rehearsal room and the live audience filming to the machinations of the BBC bosses and the debriefs in the TV Centre bar, they are a joyous celebration of television comedy and creative collaboration and you can feel the actors having fun with the broad, camp humour.
Crucially though, it’s in these moments that the iconoclastic, rebellious spirit of the Sixties is shown most convincingly, effectively butting up against the old-fashioned, restrictive, prejudiced attitudes that prevailed then and, sadly, so often persist now.